I’ve had the privilege in the last few weeks to be in several schools—primary, elementary, and college. In no way are these schools and the classrooms representative of all Kenyan schools. I make no comments about Kenyan education, just about what I experienced in my several visits.
Kenya labels what Americans would call “Grades 1-8” as “primary school classes 1-8.” If students in Class 8 are successful with the national exams, they can enter secondary school in “Form 1” and proceed to “Form 4.” A statistic I found a few weeks ago said that only 25% of Kenyan students who exit secondary school go on to college or university. About 40% of those exiting primary school go on to secondary school. Drop-out rates are very high with school fees being the primary reason for not continuing.
There seem to be a lot of boarding schools in Kenya and there are a lot of parochial schools—some in name and some operated by religious bodies. Because of a Kenyan government action a few years ago, many religiously-named schools maintain a denomination name but are wholly supported by government funds and parent fees. The “fee” part is the “biggie.”
I had an absolutely delightful time—two days after the presidential election—to stand in front of a group of class 5 students and answer questions about America. I was initially taken aback when I walked in the room and had every uniformed student suddenly stand at attention by their desks. On a signal of some kind by my host, they spoke in unison, “Good morning.” They sat down when I acknowledged their greeting and asked them to sit.
After a small bit of encouraging, the questions started to come: “What is the capital of your country?” “Where do you live?” “What is the highest mountain in your country?” “Did you vote for Obama?” “When will the next election be?” “What is the basic food staple in your country?” “How is education different in your country than in Kenya?”
When I walked in to the crowded room at a teachers’ college where students are in a two-year certificate program, the questions started faster and were more intense. The class was made up of students who were preparing to be English teachers in the primary school, and for that day, they were dressed as they would be in the classroom of the villages where they might be employed. As a result, there were students in Muslim attire, some wearing clothing reflecting a particular tribal group, and all crowded in a small classroom with four double rows of desks filling the room from front to back wall.
The election began their questions—what about Obama, how a two-party system works and is it good, what did it take to become a teacher in America, what was my name, what did I think of Kenya, and many more. I wrote my name on the board and that of my spouse, Joan. I pronounced them, then asked them to pronounce the names. We had a discussion about the difficulty of our names and I was able to have them analyze the difficulties because of Kiswahili pronunciation rules, where each vowel in a double-vowel word is pronounced; where an “e” on the end of a word is pronounced; and why the letter “r” is difficult because among some tribal groups “r” and “l” either don’t exist or they are pronounced the same. “Joan” becomes a two-syllable word in Kenya.
The name thing moved us to an old English teacher’s lesson about how the silent “e” on the end of a word which has a final syllable with a single vowel in it changes the vowel to be long when pronounced. I put “hop” and “hope” on the board, they nodded and voiced understanding, then produced a couple more examples. There were a few more silent “e” comments, and then Obama came back into the discussion. They wanted to know if I was a Democrat or Republican (I answered). They asked about Oregon and I drew a map of the U.S. on the board and quickly identified key states, including Kansas (my original home). I asked why Kansas was important this week and one student quickly answered that it was the birthplace of Obama’s mother. I put in the information that at Oregon State University, the basketball coach, Craig Robinson, was the brother of Michelle Obama. That scored points.
And then the big question: A young Muslim woman in the front row asked, “If you had a daughter, would you allow her to marry a man from Kenya?” The answer was easy—I said, “I would not allow my daughter to do that because my daughter is a very independent person who makes her own decisions and if she chose to marry a man from Kenya, she would make that decision on her own.” The class applauded. I had noticed a sign upon entry to the rather remote campus located up on a hill and not close to a town, that it was “gender respective.” I commended them for the sign.
I wanted to stay and interact. I wanted to be a teacher in that school. But, I had told another student of mine that I would arrive at her site that same day, so it was back in the university car and the driver (a young man who has been admitted to MIT with scholarships but can’t afford transportation) headed off to Chogoria where there is a primary school (a boarding school) for students in class 5 to class 8. Those were the class 5 students I described earlier.
There was a lot of learning taking place in the schools I visited. Students—both college and primary school—were jammed together with rows of desks filling all available space. My friends who live and work in Maua, just 50 Km away from Meru, often visit schools without desks, with dirt floors (creating problems from dirt-borne insect bites and worse), and where school may have to be suspended for weeks because there is no water. I remember complaining when I was teaching high school and the class count reached 25.
It is interesting to consider the lives of children in Kenya. They run the full gamut. I see students on my campus here who daily wear different exotic clothing and who have a large assortment of jewelry which, to my untrained eye, appears to cost a fortune. And I see nine-year-olds on the street in the one set of clothes they probably own who dig through trash pits trying to put something in the dirty bag they carry. We see the young 9-year-old who showed up at the university gate last Sunday saying he was 12 and asking for a job.
My spouse, in concert with the security guard at the gate got the small boy to our place where I put him in the shower, made a quick trip up the road to purchase pants, shirt, underwear, and shoes from the throng of vendors who have their wares spread out on the muddy ground on pieces of plastic or cloth. We put food in front of him which he wolfed down. And Joan and her guard friend have walked him through social agencies in Meru trying to find a relative who cares enough about him to try and find a place he can live. His parents left for Nairobi five months ago and no word has come back. He was left in the care of an aunt who paid school fees for her own kids, but not him. He has been passed to a friend, then an older brother [according to the stories he has told], who have beat him, demanded that he work to earn money, and who haven’t fed him well. The last relative told him to leave (without money) and thus he found his way to the streets and then the campus. Today, Joan will return to social services to see what progress they have made on locating a place or person who cares (we’re not optimistic).
He can read a little, write, some, does some arithmetic, eats like a horse, smiles, laughs a little, and complies with anything we ask him to do—nice, but obviously one of those characteristics which makes him extremely vulnerable to others. There are way too many of these kids on Kenyan streets. A boarding school would be ideal since there is no place for him to live. Worse, there is no one to care for him. Can you imagine being nine (he finally did tell us his correct age though he doesn’t know his birthday) and not having anyone care enough for you that they would even wonder where you are? It’s sad.
This is another of those “counseling” situations where deep discussions of the conflict between real and ideal self don’t make much sense. This is the kind of situation which calls for a Bemak-Ching sort of assertive counseling approach which throws away theory and technique and takes action.
My spouse, who has been deeply involved with this young boy for a week now, is close to tears and will be beyond that point when social services get to the place where they throw up their hands and say, “We don’t have any other options.”
He’s really a bright, cute, undernourished kid. And we will wonder about him for years after we pull up stakes and return to America.
Brooke Collison is professor emeritus of counselor education and a former president of the American Counseling Association. He will be a visiting professor at Kenya Methodist University in Meru, Kenya during the September trimester. Joan Collison will be a volunteer with children in a social service agency during their four-month stay in Kenya.